George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General Steuben, 26 February 1779

To Major General Steuben

Head Quarters [Middlebrook] 26th feby 1779.


Capt. Walker delivered me your favor of the 10th inst. with the Sequel of your Manuscript—Inclosed I transmit you my Remarks on the first part—the Remainder shall follow as soon as other affairs of equal importance will permit.1

I very much approve the conciseness of the work—founded on your general principle of rejecting every thing superfluous—tho’ perhaps it would not be amiss in a work of instruction, to be more minute and particular in some parts.

One precaution is rendered necessary by your writing in a foreign tongue—which is to have the whole revised and prepared for the press by some person who will give it perspicuity and correctness of diction, without deviating from the appropriated terms and language of the Military Science2—these points cannot be too closely attended to, in Regulations which are to receive the sanction of Congress—and are designed for the general Government of the Army. I am with great regard & esteem Sir Your most obedt Servt.

Df, in John Laurens’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1Steuben’s letter to GW of 10 Feb. has not been found. Steuben spent the winter of 1778–79 in Philadelphia preparing the manuscript for his military instruction manual, which, on 29 March, Congress accepted and ordered published as Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:384–85). GW apparently had received at an earlier date the first part of Steuben’s manuscript dealing with drill instructions and various tactical maneuvers. The second part of the manuscript, the receipt of which GW acknowledges in this letter, concerned procedures for marches, the establishment and maintenance of encampments, roll calls, inspections, drumbeats, guard duty, care of arms and ammunition, treatment of the sick, military reviews, and duties of officers and men.

The undated and unsigned draft of GW’s remarks on the first part of Steuben’s manuscript is in DLC:GW. In the writing of John Laurens, it reads: “Chap. 1st Officers who exercise their functions on horseback are to wear Swords—The Platoon officers are to be armed with Swords and Espontoons.

“Chap. 3. Under the head of Formation [of a company]—There is a disagreement between the Plan and directions, which it is meant to illustrate.

“ibid. The advantages resulting from these additional file-closers, will not compensate the loss of fire, occasioned by drawing so many corporals from the ranks—the eldest corporal from each company in addition to those who are already posted as File-Closers—will be sufficient.

“Chap. 5. The manner of performing the oblique Step ought to be explained.

“ibid—Manual Exercise. The word of command take sight is to be universally used instead of present. The motion of grounding the Firelock is omitted—as it is frequently useful and when executed ought to be done in order—a word of command for the purpose seems necessary—The Words of Command for fixing and unfixing the bayonet ought likewise to be inserted.

“Chap. 6 Artic. 3. This manœuvre does not appear to be practicable in real service.

“Chap. 9 Article 6. In the Central display—Two Serjeant[s] of the first platoon, mark the position to which the platoon of allineation is to march.

“This should be mentioned under the head of directions to the first platoon—nothing is said of the return of these Serjeants after the end for which they were posted—is answered—it is probably intended that they should retire along the rear of the battalion.

“The forward movement of the platoon of allineation, is intended to prevent a kind of retrograde evolution which would otherwise be performed by one wing in the Central display—and also by the whole battalion, where the display is made on a different hand from that on which the Column was formed—Quære whether it would not be well to practice both methods—the method alluded to, may be very serviceable in the oblique order of battle, when either of the wings is to be refused—and seconds the gradation of the Columns.

“Chap. 10. Artic. 4. The hollow square or Oblong with a Reserve in Center—appears preferable to the disposition here proposed—when the battalion is menaced by Cavalry—It is readily formed—is capable of pursuing its march or halting in order of defence as occasion may require—and better calculated to resist the Charge of resolute horse.

“Chap. 12. Art. 1. Passage of Lines. The two cases appear reducible to one—For the more prompt and convenient execution of this manoeuvre—one or other of the two Lines must form Columns. The very reason which obliges the first line to retire, will incapacitate it to form Columns by Platoons. Whereas the Second Line not being immediately subject to the enemys fire may very readily by central foldings be thrown into that order—and leave ample intervals for the Retreat of the first line.

“Some Tacticians reject the method of displaying the second Line at all—and recommend having it disposed in Regimental Columns—in which form they are ready to advance on the first notice for the partial or general relief of the first line—and leave sufficient issues for its Retreat.

“The french method is to have the second line displayed—and in case of necessity—the front line retires—the second line opening passages wherever the head of the columns present themselves. The difficulty of forming the first line into Columns—and the danger in our slender-order, of having the second line overborn by the first—seems to determine in favor, either of throwing the second line into Regimental Columns—or having it previously disposed in that way—which last method appears preferable, as the retiring of the first line in time of action is naturally a moment of tumult and confusion, and the more movements there are to be performed, the more the confusion will be increased and vice versa. On this plan the first line should endeavour to retire in line.

“To be added—Chap. 9—The Title of this Chapter is “the Method of forming & displaying Columns and changing front.”

“The last is omitted in the body of the Chapter—probably it was intended to be introduced under the 9th Article” (DLC:GW).

Nearly all of these changes were incorporated in the published version of Steuben’s regulations. However, in the manual exercise, the command “take aim” is used instead of “take sight” as GW suggested. The “Method of passing the front Line to the Rear” is in chapter 11, article 9, rather than chapter 12, article 1. The instructions for “Changing the Front of a Line” are in article 10 rather than article 9 of chapter 9.

For GW’s further observations on infantry tactics against cavalry and his notes on the second part of Steuben’s manuscript, see GW to Steuben, 11 March, and n.1 to that document. For Major General Stirling’s remarks on both parts of Steuben’s manuscript, see Stirling to GW, this date, and the source note to that document.

2Steuben’s aide-de-camp Capt. Benjamin Walker and his secretary Pierre Étienne Du Ponceau translated his work. GW, who understood no foreign language, read an English version of Steuben’s manuscript that has not been identified.

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